Illustration of a woman awake at night

Can’t fall asleep before midnight? “I tried sleep therapy to help me drift off earlier”

Posted by for Wellbeing

You get into bed at a decent time, turn of the lights and… you lie there for hours unable to get off to sleep. Is there any way of training your brain to power down earlier? Writer and veteran member of the midnight club Sian Meades-Williams goes on the search for answers. 

I am a night owl. I rarely ever go to sleep before 1am. I’ve always told myself I’ll never be a morning person. Lately, I’ve been wondering if that’s true.

Going to bed isn’t the issue – I’ll gladly turn in at 9pm with a book – but I won’t turn my light out for hours. The knock-on effect is obvious: I wake up somewhere around 9am. And that just doesn’t work for me anymore; I’m missing out on a big chunk of my day. I’m 39 – not the girl in her twenties who could go out dancing all night and be at her desk early the next day.

To anyone with kids, my casual attitude to sleep must seem like an enormous luxury. I work for myself, I don’t have a commute. This is something that has become more prevalent since the pandemic – with no one telling us to be at our desks at a certain time, our sleep took a knock. A study by King’s College London showed that 52% of women had disrupted sleep during the pandemic. Even when we slept more, we felt less rested. Our daily habits shifted, and so did our bedtimes. 

I’ve tried changing my sleep routine before. I usually manage about four early nights before reruns of Friends become more enticing than 40 winks. So, determined to make a change that’d stick, I decided to talk to a professional sleep physiologist. Stephanie Romiszewski, is founder of the Sleepyhead Program – an interactive therapy for people with sleep problems.

“Your body loves regulation,” Romiszewski explains. “It’s your behaviour over time that helps your brain understand what you want to do at night.” 

Sleep tip number one: only go to sleep when you’re genuinely tired

The advice she gives me is the direct opposite of what I’ve tried before: rather than concentrating on the time I go to sleep, she tells me to wake up an hour earlier and to only go to bed when I’m sleepy. Its simplicity is startling. I’m beginning to understand that the choices I make every day are confusing my brain. It has no idea what schedule it’s supposed to be on. 

Sleep tip number two: get a wake-up alarm clock

To help me reach my Cinderella goals (glass slippers optional), I have some electrical assistance: wake-up lights. After some trial and error I settled on a combo: the Lumie Zest is an alarm clock with a SAD light built-in (great if you’re tight on space), but it’s the Lumie Bodyclock Glow 150 that I prefer on my bedside table. Its sunset function really helps me nod off. 

Now the Zest sits on my desk for a 20-minute burst of light while I tackle my morning inbox. It’s helping to regulate my brain’s rhythms, which makes the process much easier.

Despite my enthusiasm, however, my timing couldn’t have been worse in starting this experiment: the UK-wide heatwave hits at the same time my therapy starts. I diligently set my alarm clock, but anyone who got any sleep that week was lucky. 

Sleep tip number three: wake up at the same time every day

By the time the temperature drops, it’s the weekend. Usually I love a long lie-in, but Romiszewski has urged me to keep my wake-up time the same every day. “If you keep lying in, you keep changing the goalposts. If you keep changing the goalposts, your body doesn’t know when to make you hungry, or how to regulate your hormones. And that’s going to affect so many things about you and how you go about your day.” 

Instead of hitting snooze, I head to a very early barre class. It’s my favourite part of the week. I join again the week after.

As the days pass, I notice it’s not just my sleep pattern that’s changing – trying to be more Cinderella has actually made me a little more Sleeping Beauty. My skin looks fantastic. I really do look bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. 

Of course it’s not as easy as I’d hoped; I’m trying to break a habit that’s built up over years. I find myself cutting corners, trying to have my cake and eat it. Settling into my new wake up time was easy enough, but my bedtime didn’t immediately change with it. 

After a few days, I’m exhausted and cranky. When I confess to Romiszewski that I’ve been ‘cheating’, she’s quick to amend my choice of words. “There’s no good or bad when it comes to sleep. There’s no cheating. There are lots of different ways to sleep.” I feel a flood of relief that I’m not heeding my progress.

My drive for perfection was making things much harder when actually, everything I did to change my sleep pattern fit into my life. I drank wine, I went out with friends, I’m delighted to tell you that my caffeine intake remained constant. An all or nothing approach might have got me results quicker, but I think I would have rallied against it. One or two small choices were enough to start seeing a difference. 

Sleep tip number four: make the most of the morning

We’re so used to making time for ourselves after work and on the weekends, rather than throughout the day. I realise that the first hour of the day can be time just for myself. The idea that this is a gift rather than a chore makes me really excited. I want to start my day with a little joy. The next morning I do some gardening while the cat chases bees.

Have I transformed my sleeping habits in two weeks? Not quite. Instead, I see all of the places I could have improved. I’m surprised to find that Romiszewski is buoyed by this. “The impact is really positive. You chose to do it – your gardening, your exercise – they’re small changes, but they add up.” I realise she’s right and my critical eye is replaced with a sense of achievement.

Most importantly, I’ve made changes that I want to continue. I love my new schedule; I can see and feel the improvements. I want to keep aiming for it until it sticks. Change doesn’t need to be drastic. It can be small and incremental. When I hang up, I remember that Cinderella didn’t quite make her midnight bedtime either. Perhaps she was something of a work in progress, too. 

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